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Nov 10, 2010 | Commentary

Work has taken me to witness some interesting elections these last few months – June/July in Somaliland for the first presidential polls since 2003; in August, a brief trip to Kenya on the eve of a constitutional referendum, a vote which relieved citizens and spectators alike for avoiding communal violence, as happened in the aftermath of the 2007 presidential polls ; September for parliamentary elections in Afghanistan; and October for long-delayed presidential elections in Côte d’Ivoire (with no outright winner, a second round run-off between the two top candidates, incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo and former prime minister Alassane Ouattara will be held later this month, most probably on November 28).

I don’t intend here to comment on the technical conduct of these electoral events – my direct experience of each is only anecdotal. Comprehensive election observation mission reports are available on all four polls. This piece instead contrasts initial expectations of the elections in all four, fragile, emerging democracies, with the rather different post-vote judgements later offered.

In all four countries, analysts were braced for trouble. Somaliland watchers had grave doubts that incumbent president Dahir Riyale Kahin, who defeated veteran opposition leader Ahmed Mohammed Silanyo by only 80 votes (a margin of 0.02%) in 2003, would accept a loss in the 2010 rematch with Silanyo. Silanyo prevailed over Riyale by almost 17 points. Without any subsequent violence or protests, Riyale conceded defeat and handed over power in a peaceful transition.

In Kenya, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission warned in July that the “threat of violence is real…it’s only manageable to the extent that the law enforcement officers don’t work alone.” The new constitution was overwhelming approved, with no electoral violence reported, and almost 70% of votes were cast in favour of approving the new draft, to massive, nation-wide celebrations.

In May, the International Crisis Group said of Côte d’Ivoire: “unless…more is done to ensure the security of the whole electoral process, they may be preparing the ground for violent chaos, either before, during or in the immediate aftermath of elections.” Post-vote in October, there was nothing but congratulations to offer to Ivorians. Turnout neared 80%, one of the highest rates of voter participation in Africa. The African Union called the polls a “historical breakthrough’, a central moment in resolving the crisis that began with the outbreak of civil war in 2002. The UN was similarly effusive, “commend[ing] the Ivorian people for their massive and peaceful participation in this crucial vote, which represents a historic step towards the restoration of sustainable peace…”

Great anxiety confronted Afghanistan’s polls in 2010, particularly given the experience of election day in 2009, which Human Rights Watch called: “…one of the most violent days witnessed in Afghanistan in the last eight years…early impressions of turnout suggest that violence and intimidation succeeded in keeping voters away from polling stations in a huge swath of the country, which adds up to a successful day for the Taliban.” Indeed, in a briefing with the representative of the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan in Kabul in early September 2010, my colleagues and I were told that “security is our [the Commission’s] only problem.”

Afghan authorities and international actors were quick to pronounce the 2010 vote as a relative success (Reuters/DPA; The Guardian, LA Times, US Embassy, ISAF) over 2009. But unlike Somaliland, Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire, all fragile democracies (although in the latter case, final opinion has to be reserved until the second round is complete) this judgement was quickly reversed in Afghanistan.

Reported The Guardian, a week after polling:

The US-led coalition force in Afghanistan has conceded that last week’s parliamentary elections were far more violent than it first claimed and that the country was rocked by many more insurgent attacks than during last year’s presidential election.

The figures are an embarrassment for the international community which cited a decrease in violence as proof of the greater capacity of the Afghan army and police to guarantee security during Saturday’s election.

A spokesman for ISAF said that although it had originally claimed there were fewer insurgent attacks on Saturday the true figure showed an increase of more than a third over last year’s vote, which at the time was the most violent day of Afghanistan’s post-Taliban period.

The figures are a significant volte face for ISAF, which on the day after the election asked one news agency to publish a correction after it reported an increase in violence.

ISAF’s initial claim had been ridiculed by many observers who reckoned the level of violence was far higher. The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office said it recorded 443 insurgent attacks around the country on 18 September, a 56% increase on the 20 August presidential election last year.

That level of violence also constituted a 15-fold increase in violence for the month of September, the organization said.

Despite the significant international presence, the failure to secure Afghanistan’s elections (again) only adds to questions about the approach to furthering progress in the country. For the electoral processes in Somaliland, Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire to defy concerns of insecurity and arrest expectations of violence and disorder, no matter their other shortcomings, proves the value of legitimizing elections through voter confidence and a secure environment, at least as much as considerations of technical competency and international electoral standards.